Fifty-three-year-old Jai Ram Thakur be­came the chief min­is­ter of Hi­machal Pradesh prac­ti­cally by de­fault, after P.K. Dhu­mal, the BJP’s chief min­is­te­rial face, lost his elec­tion last De­cem­ber. Nine months on, the first-time chief min­is­ter ap­pears to have gained a grip on gov­er­nance. Ex­cerpts from an in­ter­view with Asit Jolly:

Q. Did you be­come the chief min­is­ter only be­cause Prem Ku­mar Dhu­mal lost his elec­tion?

The day after Amit Shah an­nounced that Dhu­mal would be chief min­is­ter, he came to my con­stituency and in­di­cated that the party was con­sid­er­ing a lead­er­ship change. Cit­ing that I was a four-time MLA, a min­is­ter and state party pres­i­dent, he spoke of a ‘big­ger re­spon­si­bil­ity’ for me. While it is true that had he won, Dhu­malji would have been chief min­is­ter, it was clear that my name was un­der con­sid­er­a­tion well be­fore the elec­tions.

Q. But it has taken the party time to get ac­cus­tomed to you as the leader?

I have risen from the low­est ranks and served dili­gently at sev­eral im­por­tant po­si­tions. It is just that I haven’t pro­jected my­self like some other lead­ers. So I have never had any trou­ble find­ing ac­cep­tance amid the party cadre.

Q. There is a per­cep­tion that you don’t trust civil ser­vants and rely on po­lit­i­cal ad­vi­sors. Crit­ics point to large-scale trans­fers by your govern­ment.

Trans­fers in­vari­ably hap­pen when gov­ern­ments change. But I have shuf­fled less than half the num­ber of of­fi­cers com­pared with the pre­vi­ous Congress regime. To bring the ben­e­fits of de­vel­op­ment to the low­est lev­els, you need peo­ple you can trust. But I have a good equa­tion with the bu­reau­cracy and try to work as a team. Un­like some peo­ple, I don’t be­lieve you need to shout or talk down to sub­or­di­nates to make your­self heard.

Q. How has your ten­ure been so far?

We have taken many new ini­tia­tives, but I think the big­gest suc­cess will come from Jan Manch, a pub­lic fo­rum where a cabi­net min­is­ter vis­its an assem­bly seg­ment ev­ery month to ad­dress griev­ances. Peo­ple are par­tic­i­pat­ing in their thou­sands. More than 10,000 com­plaints have been ad­dressed. There are other schemes, like the Gri­hani Su­vidha Yo­jana, through which ev­ery house­hold in Hi­machal, in­clud­ing those not cov­ered un­der the Cen­tre’s Ujjwala scheme, will have an LPG con­nec­tion within a year. I have had more sup­port from the cen­tral govern­ment than any pre­vi­ous state govern­ment. New tourism, hor­ti­cul­ture, agri­cul­ture, ir­ri­ga­tion and pub­lic health projects worth Rs 6,500 crore have al­ready been sanc­tioned.

Q. Rev­enue gen­er­a­tion is a chal­lenge in a hill state like Hi­machal. How do you pro­pose to raise re­sources?

The pre­vi­ous [Congress] regime wreaked havoc on the fi­nances, es­pe­cially dur­ing the months pre­ced­ing the polls, lead­ing to ac­cu­mu­la­tion of a huge debt. De­spite this, we are rais­ing rev­enue. We have tweaked the ex­cise and min­ing poli­cies, and are tak­ing mea­sures to pre­vent any flight of in­dus­try, now that the cen­tral tax hol­i­day is over. I have also suc­ceeded in kick-start­ing stalled power projects. All this will help gen­er­ate fresh rev­enue for the state.

Q. What about tourism?

It’s a core sec­tor. But tra­di­tional des­ti­na­tions like Shimla, Manali, Dal­housie and Dharamshal­a are at sat­u­ra­tion point. I am look­ing to de­velop new des­ti­na­tions, like the Jan­jehli Val­ley (Mandi), which is more pic­turesque than Manali. There is also Chan­shal in Shimla dis­trict, with a huge po­ten­tial for win­ter sports. These des­ti­na­tions were ig­nored in the past be­cause of poor con­nec­tiv­ity and a lack of fo­cus by suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments.

Q. You are said to have an un­easy re­la­tion­ship with Dhu­mal and J.P. Nadda. Both wanted to be chief min­is­ter...

Not at all. Both of them, as well as Shanta Ku­marji, are re­spected vet­er­ans. They don’t say much, but when they do, I take their ad­vice se­ri­ously.

Q. You have said that you will not act vin­dic­tively. But what about the BJP’s ‘chargeshee­t’ against the Virb­hadra Singh govern­ment?

I have sought in­for­ma­tion on the fac­tual po­si­tion of the charges. When I say I won’t act vin­dic­tively, I don’t mean I will look the other way. But un­like ear­lier regimes, I refuse to make that my fo­cus. Hi­machal needs de­vel­op­ment. That will be my pri­or­ity.

Q. Un­like the chief min­is­ters of other BJP-ruled states like Ut­tar Pradesh, Ut­tarak­hand and Haryana, who are stri­dent on is­sues like slaugh­ter­houses and refugees, you are viewed as ‘soft’. Hi­machal Pradesh is a peace­ful state and law and or­der here is much bet­ter than in the states you men­tion. I have my own way of work­ing and don’t nec­es­sar­ily have to em­u­late them. That said, I re­spect what the other chief min­is­ters are do­ing.

Q. The BJP suf­fered re­verses in Gu­jarat, Kar­nataka, Ra­jasthan, Mad­hya Pradesh and Ut­tar Pradesh. What is your pre­dic­tion for 2019?

At the na­tional level, Naren­drab­hai is clearly the most pop­u­lar leader. State polls and by­elec­tions are not re­flec­tive of the na­tional mood. Lok Sabha 2019 will be fo­cused on who can best lead the na­tion. Modiji’s pop­u­lar­ity has only grown dur­ing his un­blem­ished ten­ure as prime min­is­ter. Even when op­po­si­tion lead­ers at­tack him, peo­ple are not pre­pared to be­lieve them. He has the com­plete con­fi­dence of the peo­ple. We will win all the four Lok Sabha seats in Hi­machal Pradesh.

The day after Amit Shah an­nounced Dhu­mal would be CM, he came to my con­stituency and hinted that a lead­er­ship change was on the cards. Cit­ing that I was a four-time MLA, a min­is­ter and state party pres­i­dent, he spoke of a ‘big­ger re­spon­si­bil­ity’ for me


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